The Slatest

Oklahoma Zookeeper Known as “Joe Exotic” Charged In Murder-for-Hire Plot

A still from a YouTube video showing Joe Exotic standing outside
Joe Exotic
Joe Exotic TV/YouTube

A zookeeper specializing in tigers and other big cats who gained brief internet fame in 2016 has been arrested and charged in a murder-for-hire plot in Florida, apparently over his grudge against an animal rights activist.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who is known more widely as “Joe Exotic,” was indicted last week by a federal jury in Oklahoma after being accused of attempting to hire two people in 2017 to murder a Jane Doe, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.

The Jane Doe went unnamed, but Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and the head of an animal sanctuary in Tampa, has said she was that target.

Maldonado-Passage and Baskin had a long-running conflict that on more than one occasion led the former to threaten the latter. In one video, saved online by Baskin’s animal sanctuary, Big Cat Rescue, Maldonado-Passage whips out a gun and fires it at a blonde blow-up doll. “Carole Baskin better never, ever, ever see me face to face,” he warns in the video.

In another video saved on the sanctuary’s site, Maldonado-Passage sent a message to his critics, and to Baskin in particular. “For Carole and all of her friends that are watching out there, if you think for one minute I was nuts before, I am the most dangerous exotic animal owner on this planet right now,” he says. “And before you bring me down, it is my belief that you will stop breathing.”

Baskin, who has long criticized Maldonado-Passage’s tiger operation in Oklahoma, said in her video statement that the 55-year-old zookeeper had been threatening her online for years. But she also said his threats were representative of the anger directed at her from other big cat owners, and in particular from “roadside zoos [that] rip tiger cubs from their mothers at birth to charge the public to pet and take photos with them.” At one point, she said, “a number of snakes” were placed in her mailbox.

According to Baskin’s statement, she and the Big Cat Rescue had managed to thwart Maldonado-Passage’s plans for a traveling exhibit of tiger cubs around malls in the Midwest and Southwest. Her efforts enraged Maldonado-Passage, who retaliated by renaming his organization to sound similar to hers, eventually causing Baskin’s group to sue for intellectual property rights.

According to the indictment, Maldonado-Passage then paid one person $3,000 in November 2017 to travel to Florida and murder the intended victim. In December, he allegedly offered to pay another person to commit the murder. That second person was an undercover FBI agent.

In 2016, Maldonado-Passage gained brief internet fame for his campaign as an independent presidential candidate. In one of his campaign videos, he vowed not to cut his hair or wear suits if elected. “I have tried drugs through my younger years of my life,” he said. “I am broke as shit. I have a judgment against me from some bitch down there in Florida.”

Many who saw the video of the gay, mullet-sporting zookeeper candidate were delighted, including John Oliver, who profiled him and other candidates in October 2016 for his show: “Joe Exotic is truly the candidate you’d want to sit down and have a beer with, then another beer, and then several more beers until you’re drunk enough to try meth for the first time.”

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Maldonado-Passage also in June came in third in a three-person race for the Libertarian nomination for Oklahoma’s gubernatorial race.

Maldonado-Passage was arrested Friday in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and faces 20 years in prison for his charges.